3.   Acknowledging Others

By Paul Vanderveen

Copyright ©1999, 2003 by Paul Vanderveen

When I was a kid, I knew someone whose family was rich and had a full-time maid, but never imagined I'd be in that situation myself. Now I lived in a mild tropical climate, not far from the ocean, with both a maid and a guard, and our friends seemed to take such services for granted.
     It was wonderful. I didn't have to cook or wash dishes, clean house, go grocery shopping, do laundry, iron or mend anything. Our clothes were miraculously clean and hanging in our closet a couple days after we wore them, the bed always made and house spotless. I could ensconce myself all day in the study undisturbed. Our maid would quietly deliver my Earl Grey at ten and my lunch at noon. I didn't have to clean up afterward or answer the telephone or doorbell. By five, our small house would be spotless and, if we had asked for dinner, it would be waiting in the kitchen.
     We were hardly rich by American standards. We could afford such service because of the vast discrepancy in wealth between America and Senegal. The twenty dollars I slipped the porter at the airport was equivalent to a week's income for the average worker. We were glad to pay a little more than that each week for wonderful maid service, and our maid was an honest, diligent and happy employee. Unlike some other employers, especially other Senegalese, we gave her weekends and evenings off, paid her on time and let her come and go pretty much as she pleased.
     Our guard opened and closed the gate and garage door for us and kept the car clean, but his main function was deterring thieves. When we first drove past the Presidential Palace downtown, I noticed that it didn't have any bars on its big windows, one of the few buildings in town that didn't. Instead, it had a tall spiked fence and many official guards policing the grounds. We only had one guard to keep out the thieves, though, so needed bars on all the windows of our little house. The high wall around our small yard was topped with broken glass. The bougainvillea facing the street bloomed brightly in red and purple, and its tall, thickly intertwined branches served as an effective barrier to trespassers. No one could open our cute little gate without a key and our 24-hour guard's permission.
     He lived in a corner of our yard, in a small building which contained his room and two other small rooms--one for our little washing machine and one with a shower and a hole in the floor, which served as a bathroom for him and our maid.
     As I learned to relax walking around town, in both relatively well-off and incredibly poor neighborhoods, I wondered whether all the walls, bars and precautions were really necessary--but then I did hear about incidents of thievery, especially in certain areas of town or around certain markets. Violent desperadoes seemed rare by American standards, but incidents of petty thievery were much more common and precautions were necessary. Many people had a different sense of property, and it wasn't a good idea to leave anything laying around.
     Thieves didn't usually assault their victims in Senegal, so attentiveness was usually sufficient deterrence. Our neighborhood guards were unarmed. If they caught a thief, they usually just ganged up and beat him on the spot, as was the local custom. The police expected anyone bringing in a prisoner to return regularly to feed him, and locals widely regarded that as an unnecessary expense.
     Squatters might build a little house somewhere without worrying about land ownership. On the ocean cliffs not far from our house, they had used branches and cardboard to build tiny makeshift homes, a few of which could have fit into our modest living room. Some had magnificent ocean views, although their shacks didn't do much to improve the view for other people jogging by the cliffs or for the residents of the relatively substantial houses nearby. On a walk down a dirt road, we saw a large community of tiny shacks made of boards and whatever scrap materials people could find. We walked by women wearing colorful African prints with babies on their backs, as they went about their daily business, kids playing in the dirt. During our drives, I noticed many crowded shantytowns, sometimes huge, scattered around town.
     A Senegalese friend told me not to worry about the poverty. "We've been living like this for centuries," he said, "and no one starves."
     I wasn't fully convinced.
     "Don't you see that the children play and laugh?"
     Many of the kids did play and laugh, and I hadn't seen any overt signs of starvation or severe malnutrition. On the whole, people were notably skinnier than Americans, but that just helped me realize how many Americans were overweight.
     I wondered, however, about the pathetic children in rags begging at the street corners. Boys would come over with their shaved heads and empty tomato cans, saying "cadeau, cadeau." Where were their parents? These kids seemed seriously neglected. As best I understood it, these "taalibe" kids were not orphans, but "on loan" from their poor parents to local marabouts, or Islamic priests. They studied in Koranic schools, learning to recite the Koran in Arabic. They also "learned humility," begging in the streets for contributions for the marabout and food for themselves, permitting dutiful Muslims to practice daily charity. Some people would give the kids food, such as bread or sugar cubes, instead of money. At meal times, the boys would knock on doors and beg for their meals.
     This situation bothered me. If I saw a neglected child in the States, I would do something besides feed him and send him back out into the streets, like a stray cat. Yet most people, both Senegalese and foreigners, usually ignored these pathetic boys, who would come up to cars at a stoplight or approach pedestrians, saying "cadeau, cadeau." People usually continued with their conversations as though no one were there or just stared ahead, ignoring them, if alone.
     There were also other begging children, both girls and boys, without the taalibe trademark tomato cans. Mothers set up housekeeping on street corners, sending their young to the cars. I noticed one woman sweeping the sidewalk nicely, as though it were her yard, replete with mats and accouterments which she set up daily. At other intersections, adult beggars with major deformities limped over to cars or crawled around on their hands. Ignoring them seemed to be the standard response, although I did begin to notice that somebody on occasion would give them something.
     There were also the energetic street peddlers who were not begging, but selling various products--watches ("genuine Rolex" or "gold plated"), sunglasses, shirts and pants (which looked like pajamas), tablecloths, music tapes and similar items. If we walked around the crowded markets, they held their products in front of us, reframing their sales pitches in different ways, trying to get us to buy. "Good price, mister. How much you pay?" We would just ignore them, as though they weren't there, and I learned that, if we ignored them studiously enough, they usually went away.
     One day, we drove with a couple friends to a tourist attraction north of town--Le Lac Rose, a lake which appeared pink due to its high salt content. Featured on postcards, it was famous as the end point of the annual Paris-Dakar Rally. The country was so undeveloped, however, that there were no street signs or other guidance directing us how to get there. Our friends, however, knew the way.
     The roads were often narrow, crumbly and worn at the edges, so when two cars approached at least one had to drive off in the dirt. The further we drove, the worse the road got. We passed kids pretending to fix huge potholes, using sticks to fill the holes with sand and branches. They shouted, asking for money for their road work. I learned that the standard answer was "demain," as the Senegalese consider a direct "no" rude. It seemed a lot of things were going to be done "tomorrow" in this country. In some places, the pavement was so crumbling and potholed that nobody could drive on it.
     When we got to a rural village, the pavement ended abruptly, but that didn't deter us, as we keep on driving, winding past thatch huts and small brick buildings, pretty bougainvillea blooming in the background. Some kids waved, as we seemed to drive through their back yards, or front yards sometimes, sheep wandering out in the "road" in front of the car, sand everywhere. We waved back. Women walked by with their loads balanced on their heads, paying us little heed. These trips constituted sensory overload for me. I could hardly believe my eyes, so many people living like this.
     When we made it past the village to the lake, we parked the car and got out. As the four of us strolled along the lake and talked, a local man approached and offered to be our guide. We declined his services, but he persisted anyway, following us around and talking for the next ten to fifteen minutes. I found his persistence fascinating and our lack of further response embarrassing, especially when he started speaking in different languages, apparently checking to see if we were ignoring him just because we didn't understand. I saw no indication that he was irritated with us. I broke the rules, nodding when he asked in English if we spoke English, figuring that he couldn't misconstrue that as an act of hiring him. He was friendly the whole time, and nobody but me seemed to find the interaction terribly odd.
     The lake was really purple. We walked along the shore, watching a few local people in the water harvesting the salt and loading it onto skiffs. Men floated their loads toward shore, and women then carried full baskets on their heads, dumping the salt in tall piles for drying on the beach.
     We lost our would-be guide when we drove a little way and walked over the dunes to within sight of the ocean. The scenic beach area looked as though it would be good for long walks, but it was undeveloped and we figured it was too far away over the loose sand. A special vehicle, designed for the sand, came rumbling past us, transporting some tourists who, incredibly, had arrived by bus. There was a little outdoor bar back near the lake with no customers, so we enjoyed some soft drinks before heading home.
     My friends were amused when I told them of my dismay at our behavior. How could we ignore that pleasant man for so long, as he followed us around and talked with us--or at us, anyway? He was not threatening, and I felt very uncomfortable with my own evasiveness. It seemed rude to ignore him, as well as all the peddlers and beggars--young and old, in town.
     I wanted to find another way to communicate no, without acting as though these people didn't exist. The problem was, if I said "no, not interested" or "no cadeau," they took that as encouragement and tried a different or more earnest begging or sales pitch. Saying "bonjour" to the begging children only increased their pitiful behavior. My nodding to our guide probably encouraged him. Even looking at people, returning a glance, had this result. So I myself had started to ignore human beings who were talking to me and to act as though they didn't exist. In the local way, that was how one declined to participate in the proposed interaction, communicating lack of interest without much effort.
     Only for me it took effort, and I wasn't very good at it. I didn't want to be good at it, as the silent treatment seemed disrespectful. I began to wonder more about the beggars, young and old, and peddlers and guides. Was this what it meant to "learn humility?" I wouldn't ordinarily continue talking to someone who was deliberately ignoring me, and I began to marvel at the powers of those who did. How did they see us? How did they remain so calm and persistent?
     When I told my friends that I didn't think I would be going along with this practice of ignoring people anymore, they wished me luck. I guessed that they had had similar reactions once. I wanted to look directly at people and be courteous, acknowledging their existence, while conveying in a friendly way that I wasn't going to buy anything, if I wasn't, or give any "cadeau." I felt an obligation, not to buy their goods or services or to give them money, but to acknowledge their human presence.
     Would people respond with some semblance of a recognition that, on a basic level, we were on a par, as independent equals? Would people look me in the eye and level with me, considering my wishes as well as their own?
     Learning about this new culture was important, but I had no intention of just blending in or playing an expected European or foreigner "patron" role.
     One day shortly after these musings, Jan and I went shopping at "the mall," as I called a crowded downtown market, full of little shops, sidewalk stands, peddlers and hustlers. As we headed home, a young man wearing a long flowing bou-bou came alongside our car on the passenger side, giving me a nice opportunity to begin practicing my new approach. We were stuck in slowly moving traffic, and he was selling copies of the Koran. As our car inched forward and he addressed me, I broke ranks, looked directly at him and said a friendly "bonjour," acknowledging his existence and accomplishing the first part of my objective. I was pleased with myself. He showed me a book, quoting his price. So far, so good, I thought. Unfortunately, though, the book was in Arabic. I considered his product, looking through it, thinking it wouldn't hurt to read the Koran sometime, but I didn't know how to decipher any Arabic and so this book was useless to me. I said "no, merci," handing it back to him, and wondered aloud how I say, in French, "I don't buy." The guy's answer, however, was to lower his price. I asked, "Anglais, Anglais?" He understood, but shook his head--all his books were in Arabic, so I shrugged, looking at him about the obvious problem. In response, he lowered his price again! Clearly, I was not getting my point across. When I responded with a direct "no," shaking my head and motioning my hands with finality by the open window, hoping that would be the end of it, he reached into the car and put the book on my lap, giving me a still lower price! Somehow he communicated to me that this was his last price, although I doubted it. When I tried to hand it back, the car creeping along a little faster, he refused to take it. Running along in spurts now, he still tried to get me to buy it. It was only when traffic cleared up and we started to pull away that he indicated that he would take it back. We stopped the car, and he ran up.
     I had failed. True, I had acknowledged his existence, in keeping with my new policy, but in every other regard it had been a bad experience. He took everything I did, even saying "hello" or "no, thank you" or conveying that I couldn't read Arabic, as a negotiating ploy and kept pestering me! Obviously, I needed far greater skills and a wider repertoire if I was going to "acknowledge people's existence" in Dakar.
     I was glad, however, that I had started down this road and found something interesting to do in my spare time. It also made for interesting conversations with friends who monitored my progress.

  1. First Bribe
  2. You Decide
  3. Acknowledging Others
  4. Passing Grade  < Next
  5. Two Foreign Cultures
  6. How Do You Say "Help" in Arabic?
  7. Risks in the Developing World
  8. Un, Deux, Trois
  9. Hello But No Cadeau